The first chapter of Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America by Allan Greer details the relationship between the Montagnais (and Algonquin) Indians and the French in the "New France" colony. The chapter begins by introducing the primary source/journal author, Father Le Jeune, and establishing a prior relationship between the French, who engaged in fur trapping throughout the region, and the hunter-gatherer indigenous tribes, particularly the Montagnais, among whom Le Jeune spent time.
The first chapter gives us some interesting information about the Montagnais. It mentions that they trap beaver and porcupine and, in the colder winter months, rely on moose and other large game for meat and warmth. It also implies that the Montagnais have been trading furs with the French, and while they have a relationship, the colonization had little impact on the indigenous people in the first fifty or so years of fur trading together.
The chapter introduces a primary source from Father Le Jeune: a journal entry written during a winter camped out with the Montagnais. This journal gives us the following information and inferences about the indigenous Montagnais:
- The Montagnais camped with the French, and they are likely the reason that the Europeans didn't starve.
- The Montagnais were responsible for setting up and breaking camp, in a relationship the reader might expect in this colonial context.
- Women went along with the men during fur trapping, which is unique and remarkably non-European. It's likely that Father Le Jeune mentions women so frequently because he found it interesting that they took part in the hunt. Women were responsible for hauling moose and other game from camp to camp, and they also help remove ice and snow from their camp bundles as they traveled.
- Children were also involved, but they are only mentioned as scouts, temporarily going ahead of the party but not straying too far.
- The Europeans get horribly frozen, while the Montagnais "were working hard enough to sweat." This implies, again, that the Montagnais do the majority of the labor, while the Frenchmen accompany them and expect to be guided and take care of.
- The Montagnais care for Le Jeune; they call him "Nicanis" and warn him not to spend too many winters with them because they fear him dying from the cold weather.
The first chapter does a really interesting job of introducing the Jesuits and the Montagnais as independent groups who are building a relationship before men like Father Le Jeune resorted to tactics of forced assimilation and westernization.
Chapter 1, "Montagnais Hunters of the Northern Woodlands," is about the Montagnais and is based on the writings of Father Paul Le Jeune (1592-1664), the first superior of the New France mission. By the time Le Jeune first encountered the Montagnais, the tribe had been trading with the French for about half a century but had largely kept their ancestral ways. They spent the summers fishing and collecting berries along the St. Lawrence, and they spent the winters inland hunting. Their spiritual beliefs could be described as "animistic," as they believed animals and the land held spirits.
In 1633, Father Le Jeune followed the Montagnais while they were searching for game. The group was led by Mestigoit, who had earlier converted to Christianity and then returned to his Montagnais beliefs. Le Jeune wanted to learn about their beliefs and language while trying to convert them to Christianity. As Le Jeune struggled to survive, he did not impress the Native Americans around him with evidence of European superiority.
Le Jeune described the ways the Montagnais followed game, including moose and caribou when the snows came. He described the ways in which the Native Americans set up and struck their camps and transported their goods using sledges in the snow. He said of their travels, "To paint for you the hardships of the journey, I have neither pen nor brush equal to the task." He also discussed how arduous their travels on snowshoes were, and he became so cold that the Native Americans told him, "do not winter anymore with the Indians, for they will kill you."
In later entries, Le Jeune described the beliefs of the Montagnais, including their belief in Atohocam, who created the world, and Messou, who restored the world after a great flood. He also wrote about the two spirits of the seasons--one who created the spring and summer and one who created the fall and winter. He then wrote about the fine qualities of the Montagnais, including their harmonious relations with each other. As he wrote, "You do not see any disputes, quarrels, enmities, or reproaches among them." Finally, he wrote about the ways in which they resolved disputes and how they did not believe in discipling children though punishment or chastisement.